“What is Alexanderplatz in Berlin?” asked Walter Benjamin in his review of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. As Döblin’s original readers would have known quite well, Alexanderplatz is a square in central Berlin that serves as a transportation hub and as the anchor of a commercial district. But for Benjamin, the key fact about Alexanderplatz in 1929, when Döblin’s book was published, was that it was a vast construction site, “where for the last two years the most violent transformations have been taking place, where excavators and jackhammers have been continuously at work, where the ground trembles under the impact of their blows.”
Alexanderplatz, then, was the scene of a modern metropolis coming dangerously and discordantly into being—just as Berlin does in Döblin’s novel. In his afterword, Michael Hofmann, who gives us an impressively wild and fearless new translation of the book, credits it with founding “the idea of modern city literature altogether.” This might be an exaggeration of its uniqueness: Any English-speaking reader will immediately think of James Joyce and John Dos Passos as parallels, if not necessarily precursors. Like them, Döblin makes use of stream of consciousness, collage and montage, the collision of discourses and registers. One might also think of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” with its hypnotic vision of London as an “Unreal City” and the crowds of the living dead flowing over London Bridge. But when the city in question is Weimar-era Berlin, the urban chaos and dread take on new dimensions. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, we are plunged into a cauldron of alienation, violence, and social breakdown that would, just a few years after Döblin wrote his novel, deliver all of Germany into the hands of the Nazis.
At the center of Döblin’s misanthropic pageant is Franz Biberkopf, a pimp and thief who, as the novel opens, has just been released from prison, after serving four years for beating his girlfriend to death in a rage. Franz is clearly no hero, but it would also be wrong to call him an antihero; he is almost too passive to be a protagonist at all. For the most part, things just happen to him, usually sordid and miserable things. Over the course of the novel, Franz will be run over and lose an arm; another of his girlfriends, Mitzi, will be murdered and buried in a suitcase. It is this last crime, for which Franz is indirectly responsible, that sends him back to prison and then to a mental hospital, where the novel reaches its nightmarish climax.
Put this way, the story of Franz Biberkopf sounds like a cross between a hard-boiled crime novel and a piece of agitprop about the fate of Berlin’s underclass. But Berlin Alexanderplatz transcends its genre elements, largely because of Döblin’s deep lack of hope about what can be expected of human beings. (Döblin was also a practicing physician, which may have informed his clinical view of the average Berliner.) A thriller must be suspenseful, but there is never much doubt as to how Franz’s story will end. Each step in his descent—his desultory attempts to earn a living, his half-hearted decision to join up with a gang, his injuries and losses and final breakdown—feels fated, as if it would be foolish to hope for anything better. The book even features chapter summaries that are deliberately deflating: “A speedy recovery, the man is back where he was, he has learnt nothing and understood nothing,” goes the introduction to chapter five.